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Shingles Vaccine Shortage Persists

Updated: May 28, 2020

The highly effective Shingrix shot can be hard to find.

It’s the time of year when the supply of flu shots is plentiful, but adults looking to get the vaccine that protects against shingles may still be out of luck.

Shingrix, a two-dose shot that is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles, continues to be in short supply in many areas of the country. Recent reports from Pennsylvania, Montana and Colorado detail long waiting lists at pharmacies, low reserves at doctors’ offices and growing frustrations that have been building since the shortage began, more than a year ago.

So what’s the holdup? Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, says there are a number of reasons for the Shingrix shortage, starting with how effective it is.

“What you have to understand is that this is a major-breakthrough type of vaccine that was a major improvement from the prior shingles vaccine,” Adalja says, referring to Zostavax, a vaccine developed 10 years before Shingrix that reduces the risk of the condition by 51 percent.

“And shingles is a disease that people don’t want to experience if they can avoid it, because it is very painful. It can be debilitating, it can lead to chronic nerve damage, and it’s even been linked to increases in strokes and heart attacks,” Adalja adds.

Because Shingrix is so effective at preventing shingles, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that healthy adults age 50 and older get both doses, separated by two to six months — an adjustment from its guidelines for Zostavax, which is recommended for adults 60-plus. Adalja explains that expanding the pool of recipients for a double-dose vaccine created a “pull on the supply chain,” resulting in “unprecedented demand that led to supply shocks.”

On its website, the CDC states that it expects order limits and shipping delays from Shingrix manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) throughout 2019. GSK spokesperson Sean Clements told AARP that the company delivered nearly 12 million Shingrix doses in the U.S. between its 2017 launch and March 2019 and that GSK has more than 20 expansion projects underway to increase the Shingrix supply to meet demand.

Those in search of Shingrix can use GSK’s online vaccine locator to find pharmacies and health centers that have received recent deliveries. Adalja also recommends calling around to pharmacies and clinics a town or two away to check on supplies, if they are not available in your area.

Unlike the flu vaccine, the shingles vaccine is not recommended for a specific time of year. Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the virus that causes chicken pox, Adalja notes. “That virus lays dormant in your body,” he says, “and as you get older, as your immune system starts to age, you become at higher risk for a shingles reactivation.” 

Symptoms of shingles include a painful rash on one side of the face or body that blisters and itches. About 1 million people in the U.S. get shingles each year, according to the CDC.

While the wait can be aggravating on a personal level, from a public health standpoint, Adalja says, the Shingrix shortage is somewhat of a positive.

“I think this is encouraging that we have such demand for a vaccine in an era that’s really been dominated by the anti-vaccine movement,” he says. “You have people that are embracing a vaccine the way it should be embraced.”

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